The sure-fire path to getting discovered in Hollywood mystifies most emerging screenwriters—as it should, because the path is more zig zag than Oz’s yellow-brick road. The industry continues to evolve at an alarming rate, and your career strategy needs to as well. Query letters alone just don’t cut it anymore.
When an agent or manager receives a query, they typically read the logline first. If it doesn’t grab them as something they can sell, your query flies into the virtual trash bin. Wave goodbye to those months, or years, you bled on the pages.
What is a writer to do? Cast as many nets as possible, including the most-traveled path of an undiscovered screenwriter—the screenwriting contest.
I know, I know. Contests cost money and feel like a crap shoot. But with proper preparation and expectations, your odds are better than winning Powerball®. Choose the right contests, prepare your scripts before submission, and know how to make the most of contest success.
How to Choose a Contest
It’s almost impossible to get a script read when you don’t have an agent. No executive wants to waste their time unless the writer has been vetted first, hence why the blind query rarely works. However, a reputable contest validates your writing and can get you past the dreaded “we don’t accept unsolicited scripts” firewall.
Not every contest deserves a shout out though. If you win the screenwriting contest at your local film festival, beating the 12 writers in your small town, no one in the industry cares. However, reputable contests can have as many as 8,000 entrants, making a placement of Finalist or Quarterfinalist an invaluable calling card. For example, the inboxes of the Quarterfinalists of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships will explode with requests for loglines of not only their contest scripts, but also any other screenplays they’ve written. No querying needed.
The list of available contests keeps growing, but the “Best Of” list stays the same—Final Draft® Big Break, PAGE Awards, the previously mentioned Nicholl, Austin Screenwriting Competition, Script Pipeline, Slamdance Screenplay Competition, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Tracking Board Launch Pad, BlueCat Screenplay Contest, and CineStory Foundation Fellowship. You can find a complete list on MovieBytes.com®. Entry fees vary, and you’ll want to enter more than one contest, so buckle the belt—the costs add up.
Don’t immediately cross off a contest based on the cost. Remember, contests pay readers, and qualified readers aren’t cheap. If you want great judging, you need to hire readers who understand the industry and craft of screenwriting.
Matt Misetich, Partner at Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, and Film Pipeline, weighed in on contest costs. “The vast majority of contests aren’t, and to be honest logistically can’t be, free. The issue, of course: not every writer can afford to enter a contest, let alone multiple. It’s one of the main reasons we decided to launch a no-cost option in 2020, to at least create a way for someone to get reviewed and have a shot at industry exposure. Eventually, what defines a ‘competition’ will need to evolve if this sector of the industry is truly motivated to discover and promote the next generation of writers.”
Discovering talent should be a contest’s top priority. Getting discovered should also be yours. Sure, some contests give out cash prizes, but would you rather have $5,000 or a meeting with your dream agent? Facetime with an exec is priceless. Access gets you discovered. Cash gets you a few months’ supply of Milk Duds and a big dentist bill. Regardless, no one would mind a few extra bucks in their pockets, but don’t make that your main priority.
Access isn’t just for winners though. In the top contests, industry executives judge the final rounds. Your script could miss the final cut but still get read by a decision-maker excited to greenlight your project and champion representation for you. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. Executives read for contests so they can be the first to find the needle in the haystack.
Some contests also continue to support the winners long beyond the contest results. Look for contests that will have your back for the long haul, like Tracking Board Launch Pad and Script Pipeline.
With 20 years of contest experience, Misetich offers, “For Script Pipeline, when it comes to industry exposure, placing as a winner or finalist is basically the same, as we work long-term with our writers on industry circulation. But I do realize many execs only want to read winners, and many contests are kind of one round and done on helping with introductions.”
How to Prepare Your Script for Success
You have one shot at a first impression. Don’t blow it by not following the guidelines. Every contest has their own set of rules, such as not putting your name on the cover page, strict page count, etc. Always submit your script in a PDF file, not the screenwriting software file.
I often stress the importance of a high-concept story idea. In contests, however, wins aren’t based on marketability, especially with the Nicholl or BlueCat. The most important factor for success remains your writing ability and writing voice. Push the boundaries and make your script stand out. But don’t let it stand out with mistakes. Have someone else proofread it before submitting, or use a coverage service.
Polishing means much more a typo search. Does each scene add conflict as well as propel the story forward? If it’s a comedy, it needs to be funny. A horror, scary. Does the dialogue pop? Are the supporting characters also supporting the theme? With a gigantic file of PDFs in front of them, you can’t risk distracting the reader with mistakes. Make your story gripping, right from page one.
Even with a near flawless script, remember, contests are subjective. Maybe your romantic comedy reader just got a divorce and flung your script across the room in disgust. Entering your script into more than one contest helps avoid that inevitable pitfall. I’ve had the same script place as a finalist in PAGE and never make it past the second round of Austin. It happens. Contests are still a good way for both you and an executive to gauge where your talent lands in the pack.
How to Make the Most of Contest Success
It’s query time! Act promptly with the news. Dust off those old query letters, with the first line announcing your contest success, and broadcast them to your dream team of agents and managers.
Misetich advises, “Every chance a writer gets, they need to mention they were a finalist. Even if it was years ago (just...leave out the date, if it was a decade ago). Whether it’s self-promoting themselves on Twitter, in meetings, or putting it on the cover page of their script. If you won a Bronze medal at the Olympics, you’d probably stick that fact on your resume and use it as leverage to get work. Same concept here. Don’t be hesitant to self-promote.”
In-person promotion trumps all. If there’s an awards ceremony, go!
One final word of caution: If an agent or manager wants to represent you, don’t give an immediate “Yes!” unless you already researched them and know their vision fits your career goals. Having the wrong representation is worse than having no representation at all. Trust me on that one.
For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.